Sweat by Bill Hayes review – a history of the physical that gets personal

An all-encompassing book about bodies and exercise through the ages that leaves you hungry for more

A theatre director once told me that you should never ask what a play is about, just as you should never ask a prisoner what they’re in for: instead, you should ask, “What’s the inquiry?”. What’s the difference, you might wonder. Well, Bill Hayes’s Sweat is “about” a history of exercise, indeed, that’s its subtitle. Yet his inquiry would be better summarised: “What does my body and its acts and competencies say about who I am? What, for that matter, did Plato’s? And from everyone in between, what can I learn about the self?”

“Libraries, like gyms,” he writes, “have always been a refuge for me, just as gyms, like libraries, have always been places of learning.” There is a playfulness in Hayes’s writing, which reaches from a rich topsoil of endearing wordplay (“pas de dads”, he calls the sight of two middle-aged men playing squash) to the deepest layers of curiosity and empathy. He takes a profound, historian’s pleasure in tropes that echo across centuries – “The ancient Greek word for ‘gym rat’… literally translates as ‘palestra addict’”, to build an enthusiasm it’s impossible not to share. In one chapter, he learns boxing; it’s physically arduous, Plato had a thing or two to say about it (didn’t he always?), the diary is tearing along with pace and wit when Hayes leads the reader casually into the relationship that made him want to box in the first place. His boyfriend Steve – protective, capable, “always there. In our apartment, at my side, at the other end of the phone, a presence” – dies, suddenly, of a heart attack at the age of 43. It’s like being punched in the face. Hayes, by his own account, ends up medium-good at boxing, but as a storyteller, he’s Joe Frazier.

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